Joan Smalls Rodríguez was born and raised in Hatillo, Puerto Rico. She has two sisters. Her father, Eric Smalls, is an accountant, and is West Indian from St. Thomas, U. S. Virgin Islands of African and Irish ancestry. Smalls’ mother, Betzaida Rodríguez, is a social worker, who is Puerto Rican, and of Spanish, Taino, and Indian (South Asian) heritage. Smalls graduated magna cum laude from the Interamerican University of Puerto Rico with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. Upon graduation, she moved to New York City to become a model. She was signed by Elite Model Management in 2007. In 2009, she left Elite Model Management and signed with IMG Models worldwide, where she changed her focus to runway work. She was signed as a Givenchy exclusive for Riccardo Tisci’s Spring/Summer Haute Couture show in January 2010, and her modeling career took off.